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Antisemitism 101: The battle on US college campuses over the Gaza war

After the October 7 Hamas massacre, there’s been a sharp rise in anti-Israel and antisemitic events across American college campuses, as university administrations have failed to condemn terrorism.

The Jerusalem Post

By Amy Klein

October 28, 2023

Last month, Jewish social media influencer Lizzie Savetsky (284,000 followers) went to the University of Pennsylvania to protest a Palestine Writes Literature Festival. It featured 120 speakers, “2/3 of which have previously made frightening antisemitic and anti-Israel comments,” she wrote on her Instagram post.

“I went to Penn to talk to the students and make a fuss about how dangerous this is, but no one in power would listen,” said Savetsky, an alumna, who’d previously protested antisemitism at the City University of New York. Before she was set to speak at a pro-Israel rally at Columbia University Wednesday night, Savetsky told The Jerusalem Post, “I have been shouting from the rooftops for well over a year now about [the fact that] antisemitism on campus is a growing problem.”

Well, now everyone is listening.

After the October 7 Hamas massacre, there’s been a sharp rise in anti-Israel and antisemitic events across American college campuses, as university administrations have failed to condemn Hamas terrorism, did not offer support for Jewish students and faculty, and allowed pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests to go unchecked on campuses.

At Harvard, 34 student groups published an open letter blaming Israel for the Hamas assault. At Cornell, a history professor (now on leave) said at a pro-Palestine rally that he was “exhilarated” by the attacks. At Stanford, students posted “Zionism is Genocide” banners, and an instructor (on leave) allegedly separated Jewish and Israeli students and called them colonizers.

At Wellesley College, resident advisers blasted anti-Israel messages to students, saying “there should be no support for Zionism within the Wellesley College community,” while others hosted a “Die-In” last weekend. At George Washington University, a projection of “Glory to Our Martyrs,” was projected on the school library on Tuesday night. And Columbia University had to close for a day after an Israeli student was attacked by someone who allegedly pulled down posters of the victims kidnapped by Hamas.

“I want this message to get to every parent who sent their kids to Columbia University and trusted their kids’ safety to with us,” Shai Davidai, assistant professor at Columbia Business School, said in a vigil at Columbia last week that went viral on YouTube. “I want this message to get to every parent in America who sends their kids to NYU, to Harvard, to Stanford, to Berkeley, and I want you to know one thing: We cannot protect your child!” he said, noting he was speaking as an Israeli and as a dad, as someone who saw that the university administrations were not standing up for Israel and against Hamas terrorism.

ON WEDNESDAY evening, a few hundred Jewish students and community members gathered outside Columbia for a pro-Israel rally – a tiny speck in the sea compared to a massive pro-Palestinian “walkout” held on campus earlier in the day (as well as at NYU and Princeton).

There are about 1,500 Jewish students at Columbia and Barnard undergraduate schools out of 8,700 students (17.25%), which does not include the graduate campuses, the postdocs, and faculty.

Henna Krauss, a freshman Barnard student (which is part of Columbia University), said she feels on “high alert” when sitting in class with students wearing keffiyehs “in support of Hamas.” She’s distressed by the lack of support by the university following the Hamas attacks. In an open letter to the Barnard and Columbia administration published in The Jewish Link, Krauss wrote, “I am ashamed of Columbia/Barnard for not creating a safe space for all of us... we have no faith the university will protect us.”

Columbia president Minouche Shafik released a statement that specifically mentioned that doxxing – or the public posting of individuals’ personal information – would not be tolerated, but affirmed her desire not to censor speech on “either” side.

“I haven’t seen Barnard or Columbia listen or react in any way – they haven’t responded to any of our complaints, and I feel like they really don’t support us here: They haven’t said Hamas is a terrorist organization,” Krauss said, noting that after the attack they offered a wellness session with tea. “They don’t understand the magnitude of our situation – the solution to our problem is hosting a tea party?”

Meanwhile, that same evening downtown at Cooper Union, Jewish students locked themselves in the library, afraid of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, chanting “Free, free, Palestine,” banging on the door.

“My sister is currently locked in the school library as a pro-Hamas rally outside of the Cooper Union building learned the Jews were afraid and sitting in the library, then brought the protest inside and are barricading all exits,” one woman texted. “Security locked the students in, as they are worried they cannot protect the Jews.”

Eventually, most were led out through underground tunnels.

“Some students are afraid of publicly identifying as pro-Israel, Zionist, Israeli, or even Jewish,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an international nonpartisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism, which runs the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship, a one-year program that trains, educates, and empowers student leaders on college campuses around the world. But it’s not only at a university level. “Adding to this is a rise in antisemitic incidents in high schools, including increased numbers of swastikas and 'Heil Hitler' salutes and vicious social media posts. Students report being physically threatened, and some have faced physical violence, thereby increasing their feelings of anxiety, fear, and sadness.”

Change in tone in the last few years

Jewish campus leaders are worried about the change in tone these last few years. What feels different “is the shift in language, a shift in how people are physically showing up that raises concerns about what in the past we thought of as rhetoric is possible that it moves closer to the threat of actual violence, the potential to radicalize people on our campus,” said Rabbi Jessica Kirschner, Hillel Executive Director at Stanford, where there are about 600 Jews in the undergrad program (8%) and 1,200 Jewish and Israeli graduates, postdocs and faculty.

The Hamas attack deeply affected all Jews on campus, she said, “and was not so quickly responded to by people we think of responsible for our well-being on campus, was not responded to quickly by people we would think of as friends and allies,” she said. “That void was another sense of betrayal or abandonment by friends, the people you live with, and also, to some extent, by the administration.”

A whole new generation is experiencing this for the first time, she said. “This is new for a new generation of students, especially undergraduates, who were not on campus during COVID, who don’t have a personal framework around student activism in general, and who have not lived through Israeli/Palestinian conflicts on campus.”

BUT ANTISEMITISM, anti-Israel protests, and ineffective administrations are not new, according to experts.

“American college campuses have generally been very hostile to Israel since the 1980s, and it’s become worse since then,” said Jake Novak, journalist and former media director at the Israeli Consulate in New York, who broke the Wellesley College story and tweeted the Cooper Union story.

Novak cited a study at Berkeley of 230 undergrads that found that students who felt strongly about the “occupation” did not know that much. “The students most anti-Israel in this and other surveys don’t know key dates, can’t label maps, and have no grasp of the last 75 years of [Israel’s] history, let alone any time before that,” Novak said, noting radicals use student ignorance to indoctrinate anti-Zionism, among other things.

One of the most dangerous events on campus in these last 15 years, he said, is the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] staging “eviction theater” events to depict what they say happens in the territories. “So they go around the dorms at 2 a.m., knock loudly on some doors, and slip 'eviction notices' under them,” choosing rooms with names that sound Jewish.” Not Zionist, not a list of the Hillel members, just all the Jews or perceived Jews. I’d say this is the most naked example of what the hate is really about.”

He said that for years many Jews have “looked the other way” at these developments because they wanted to attend elite schools. “But the trade-off is becoming harder for everyone to swallow now,” he said. He envisioned “a much stronger effort by parents of Jewish high school seniors to find colleges that are safer and more favorable to Israel and Jewish students.”

WITH THE daily escalation of pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campuses across the country following the Hamas attacks, and lack of support from university administrations, the American Jewish community is waking up to the problem. The solution is another story.

Some major donors are pulling out support. UPenn donors like Venture capitalist David Magerman and Hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness pulled funding from the university, and Ronald Lauder has warned he will also close his checkbook if UPenn doesn’t do more to fight antisemitism. The Wexner Foundation said it’s breaking off ties with Harvard University, alleging the school has been “tiptoeing” over Hamas’s attacks. “Many of our Israel Fellows no longer feel marginalized at [Harvard]. They feel abandoned,” the Wexner Foundation said. Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer resigned from the Kennedy School of Government board.

Donors are calling for changes at the highest level, with some calling for the resignation of UPenn president Liz Magill. But some insiders say universities see the need for change.

“I think the Harvard president, Claudine Gay, is taking it very seriously, and we will see measures at Harvard that will address it in a very impactful way,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, deeply involved in questions of addressing antisemitism at Harvard.

“The kids I’ve talked to and the parents of college age kids don’t have the answers,” said Savetsky. “They want the Jewish donors to pull the funding – will that solve the problem? I don’t know if Jewish donors pulling out will make enough impact on the universities,” she said, citing the recent news stories of $8.5 billion in Arab funding of American universities.

According to a 2021 report by Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise Dr. Mitchell Bard, Qatar has given American universities $4.3b. over 35 years. “Between 1986 and 2021, colleges and universities received nearly $8.5b. from Arab sources,” the report states.

At Stanford, the rabbi says, "We are seeing here very strong organizing support coming to SJP from off-campus sources, who are, I believe, identifying strategies and points of weakness; clearly work has been put into building and organizing a strategy that's being deployed at this moment."

Parents and students may decide to change course. “I have one daughter at Harvard and one son here,” said a mother at the rally at Columbia University, preferring to remain anonymous. “She was afraid to go to class today because of the demonstration outside her classroom.” A high school student at the rally said she was considering not applying to Barnard, “because it’s not safe for Jews.”

But despite the escalation, Rothstein said that is not the right move. “The fear of attending a school that hasn’t condemned Hamas or antisemitism is understandable – some students might interpret that silence as agreement with or indifference to the tragedies that impact them so deeply,” she said. But we can’t change anything by hiding or retreating. “Students should not have to bear this weight alone, which is why academic scholars, administrators, community organizations, and other stakeholders should intentionally work together to ensure that Jewish, Israeli, and Zionist voices are fully protected and represented.”

Kirschner agrees: “Even in the midst of this moment, it’s a wonderful time to be Jewish on campus: There are long-standing institutions with robust staff devoted to partnering with students to make being Jewish on campus really great. We’re all still Jews – investing in those spaces where young Jewish students are is better than de-investing in them,” she said. “You can do it better when you’re in the game than when you’re not in the game.”

Davidai noted that he and his wife are both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, and feels the pain of the loss of innocent lives on both sides. “Many people around the world are like that: People want to do what’s good. They want to make the world a better place,” he said, noting that radical extremists have hijacked organizations on campus and don’t give students the option to sympathize with both sides. “You can be pro-Palestine and anti-terror and still say that you draw the line at rape and executing babies and burning grandmothers alive,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”

Read the full article HERE.


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